New Life, Old Traditions

Childbirth is a highly celebrated phenomenon all around the world. Welcoming a new life into a family, community and life itself is often considered the highest degree of happiness that we can earn as human beings. 

It is only natural that people tend to stick to age-old traditions despite the many advancements in the field of science. Besides when it comes to protecting this precious new life, who would take the risk? Discussing this and more, we sat with Dr. Shanti Bhatt, a pediatrician at the Civil Service Hospital in New Baneshwor, Kathmandu. 

When asked about her opinion on the ancient practices and myths followed in some villages, she nods in agreement saying, “Yes, it was very common to bathe newborns immediately after a homebirth or rubbing turmeric or even manure in the naval stump as an antiseptic. And we cannot call them ancient as they are still prevalent in the rural areas. Nowadays, there are many volunteer-driven campaigns advocating against these practices, but it is like nobody wants to be a victim of ‘what-if’” 

Turning a positive spin on a bleak situation though, Dr. Bhatt chimes, “But not all traditions are known to be harmful. In the olden days and even currently in some villages, the food for the baby is prepared in iron containers which helps to fortify the meal. So it is difficult to simply argue that these traditions are illogical because there is proof that it is not always the case. I feel like some of these traditions were definitely on to something.” 

Another frequent occurrence seems to be that the parents of the newborn are open to the doctors suggestions but feel suppressed by the older generations at home who are used to these old practices. Dr. Bhatt agrees that, “Since we cannot possibly launch a rebellion against tradition in every household, we try a more realistic approach. We encourage the family to visit us together so that they can understand what is best for their new member.” 

When we live in a country that prides itself on its rich cultural heritage, we cannot hope to win a battle that defies old customs, despite having the facts on your side. This is why in many ways, dealing with the stronghold these old traditions have on us is very similar to dealing with newborns. The use of force is likely to do more harm than good and you simply cannot reason with them. The only thing you can do is establish good habits, little by little until they become capable enough to stand on their own. 

Dr. Bhatt provides one such example of, “Navi cream. It is a popular ointment that came to exist simply to stop people from applying an assortment of things to the naval area of the newborn. They advertised this ointment as the only thing that a newborn requires.” She says that this helped satisfy the subconscious need every parent felt due to the age-old habit of applying something as soon as the baby was born. But this also helped avoid infections as they did not need to then subject the newborn to other foreign substances. 

“We do our best to prepare new parents for this big responsibility,” Dr. Bhatt confirms, “Each family at this hospital is sent home with a guidebook titled “मरो प हलो वा य पि तका” or “My first health book”. This book has all the information regarding warning signs, when to visit a doctor, vaccine details as well as things like which of the babies’ teeth will grow first. Many hospitals here even have a dedicated neonatal corner, where people can go with their concerns.” In this way, old traditions are not being challenged but only slightly nudged to make way for better practices until they become the norm. 

Overall, Dr. Bhatt holds an optimistic view towards the situation of neonatal health in Nepal. She often sees both the parents play an equally involved role in the newborn’s care as well as notices that even in lower income households, people are willing to put the health of the baby over more traditional practices. There is always room for improvement but for now, Dr. Bhatt believes, “Thoughts are changing.” 

Three Things New Parents Need To Keep In Mind According to Dr. Shanti Bhatt: 

1. Keep the baby warm and exclusively breastfeed until at least 6 months

2. Educate yourselves about the danger signs like when the baby is not willing to feed, has difficulty in breathing or any abnormal movements

3. If any abnormality is suspected, immediately consult a pediatrician. 

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